Less than one week after arriving in Europe, the U.S. Ski Team’s (USST) Kikkan Randall had the best distance performance of her career—8th place— for the opening World Cup in Sjusjøen, Norway. On a four-lap 10 k course, Randall finished +58.2 back from the winner, Marit Bjoergen (NOR), and was less than a second behind Therese Johaug (NOR), who finished 7th.
“I felt like [my race] would have been a success if I was around where I was last year at this time, or better,” said Randall to FasterSkier. “This is ahead of what I would have been happy with, but…I feel like [this] is where I want to be in my career at this point.” At the opening distance skate last season in Gallivare, Sweden, Randall was 19th.
Before the race, Randall said she tried not to think too much about results. “The plan going into today was to just put a bib on and race, and not think too much about it,” she said in a USSA Facebook release. “I had a feeling that my summer and fall preparation had gone really well this year and so it’s nice to get the confirmation that those inklings were correct!”
Randall said she skied alone for much of the race, briefly pairing with Elisa Brocard (ITA), who started 30 seconds in front of her. “She hung on, but she was the only one I could say I skied with,” Randall said.
Liz Stephen, who was the fifth starter out on the manmade course, got to sit in the leader’s chair for a time as the rest of the field rolled in, and ended up in an impressive 18th, 1:30 back from Bjoergen. The performance is her best ever for a November race, and is on par with the best World Cup result of her career—an 18th in the mass start 15 k in La Clusaz, France last December.
“I had a solid start; the first lap was a little hard to get going,” said Stephen. “I skied with Silje Oeyre Slind (NOR) for two laps, which helped keep it going…There were lots of people out there; I’m very happy to have a good result.”
Stephen wasn’t at all surprised with the way her race ended up. “I feel like I’ve been training harder than ever,” she said. “I was definitely aiming for a top-20 today, and I’m happy to get it.”
USST head coach Chris Grover, who is still in Park City and will join the team in Kuusamo, Finland for the mini-tour, was pleased with the women’s performance.
“I think she’ll [Randall] be a threat for the sprint title, but also has the potential to place very well in the overall World Cup,” he said. “This was a really special race, and for Kikkan it bodes well for the season.”
Regarding Stephen’s race, Grover believes a top-20 this early on positions her for a great year as well.
The women’s field on Saturday was stacked, as Norway started 10 women on top of their usual quota for being the host country. Nine out of the top 13 finishers were wearing the Norwegian king’s red.
Though 71 women completed four laps of a 3.75 k manmade course, it never got too crowded on the loop. Sjusøen is the first World Cup to run the new FIS starting order, in which the top 30 athletes in the Red Group are alternated with slower skiers. The goal of the change was to increase excitement for viewers for the entirety of the race, and allow television coverage to spend more time on the top racers.
Beyond being a positive change for viewers, Randall thought it also made for a more fair individual start race—“It prevents instances of the seeded group getting a [better] ride; it’s more of a time trial effort for everyone.”
The rest of the American women, like Randall and Stephen, only arrived in Europe earlier this week, and skied for a few days in the Torsby ski tunnel. Holly Brooks followed Stephen in 36th, followed by Sadie Bjornsen in 54th and Ida Sargent in 66th.
“We had modest expectations for the day because [most of] our guys didn’t get to race before this weekend…and had just gotten on snow this week,” said Grover. From here on out, the goal is to continue getting the athletes acclimated to Europe.
Sunday’s race is a 4 x 5 k relay for the women. Sargent will scramble, followed by Randall, Stephen and Brooks in the anchor. Bjornsen, who recently suffered a back strain, will rest up and recover.
Strong results from her teammates had Randall excited for Sunday. “[It] really bodes well for our relay tomorrow and we’re all psyched!”
A report on the complete women’s race can be found here.
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Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.